SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A story that Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s girlfriend had died of leukemia – a loss he said inspired him to help lead the Fighting Irish to the BCS championship game – was dismissed by the university Wednesday as a hoax perpetrated against the linebacker.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Te’o told coaches on Dec. 26 that he had received a call while at an awards ceremony from the phone number of his late girlfriend, Lennay Kekua.
By Te’o’s own account, she was an “online” girlfriend. Swarbrick said they also talked by telephone.
Swarbrick said that, based on a report from an investigative firm hired by the school, he believes Te’o was duped into an online relationship with a woman whose death was then faked by the perpetrators of the hoax.
“Nothing about what I have learned has shaken my faith in Manti Te’o one iota,” Swarbrick said at a news conference Wednesday night after Deadspin.com reported in a lengthy story that it could find no record that Kekua ever existed.
Te’o said in a statement: “This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her.
“To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating,” he said.
“In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was.”
Swarbrick said investigators’ report indicated those behind the hoax were in contact with each other, discussing what they were doing.
Deadspin reported that there was no record of Lennay Marie Kekua dying with the Social Security Administration, that a record search produced no obituary or funeral announcement. She supposedly attended Stanford but there is no mention of her death in the Stanford student newspaper.
The website reported Stanford registrar’s office has no record that a Lennay Kekua ever enrolled. There is no record of her birth in the news.
There are a few Twitter and Instagram accounts registered to Lennay Kekua, but the website reported photographs identified as Kekua online and in TV news reports are pictures from the social-media accounts of a 22-year-old California woman who is not named Lennay Kekua.
The week before Notre Dame played Michigan State on Sept. 15, coach Brian Kelly told reporters that Te’o’s grandmother and a friend had died. Te’o didn’t miss the game. He said Kekua had told him not to miss a game if she died. Te’o turned in one of his best performances of the season in the 20-3 victory in East Lansing, and his playing through heartache became a prominent theme during the Irish’s undefeated regular season.
Te’o’s statement also said: “It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother’s death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life.
“I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been.
The linebacker’s father, Brian Te’o, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press in early October that he and his wife had never met Kekua, saying they were hoping to meet her at the Wake Forest game in November. The father said he believed the relationship was just beginning to get serious when she died.
Te’o went on the become a Heisman Trophy finalist, finishing second in the voting, and leading Notre Dame to its first appearance in the BCS championship.
Te’o and the Irish lost the title game to Alabama, 42-14 on Jan. 7. He has graduated and was set to begin preparing for the NFL combine and draft at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., this week.
“Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life,” he said in his statement, “and I’m looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft.”